Tag Archives: pianists

Ballet pianists and sacred cows: a correction


What a difference a sub-clause makes

In an article in Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist“, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I was quoted as saying that live music for ballet training is a lot about tradition—the pianist is almost like the sacred cow (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?). When it first came out, I was rather perturbed that because the rest of what I said immediately afterwards wasn’t quoted, it looked as if I was saying that pianist were “just” sacred cows, i.e. that if we were only to be rational, we’d realise that they weren’t necessary. I wrote what I now see is a very muddled corrective, and some time later, I don’t react the same way at all. 

It was muddled, because I’d failed to see the flaw in my thinking, which William James would have called “medical materialism” (of which more below). I was all excited at the time by an idea I’d read in Catherine Bell’s  book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she cites the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:

Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)

When I said “sacred cow” in the interview, I meant that there might be a very good reason why the pianist was regarded as sacred, as a form of ritual.

Medical materialism, pianists, and cows

But since then, I’ve read Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, and was delighted on p. 36 (and 40 ffl.) by the term “medical materialism.” Coined by William James. It refers to a kind of “nothing-but-ism,” a tendency to reduce the spiritual dimensions of experience to something rational and material. In other words, medical-materialist thinkers try to explain other people’s ritual actions as being based not on what they say it is (a ritual) but something else. Unwittingly, when I got all excited about the sacred cow text above, it blinded me to the possibility that perhaps teachers and dancers do like having pianists for ritual reasons. Why not? Why does there have to be a reason? Why can’t ritual be the reason? 

Mary Douglas points out that the opposite of medical materialism is also problematic: i.e. one should think twice before assuming that when “we” wash our hands, it’s for only for hygienic reasons, and when “they” do it, it’s only a ritual. Likewise, a ritual may also serve as cleansing, and cleansing may also be a kind of ritual, whoever is doing it. 

Live and recorded music: problems of framing

My thinking at the time was very muddled, because my conclusion came out in favour of regarding pianists as ritual, but I’d cited something that did not support that view at all. Mary Douglas, William James and medical materialism would have given me the frame I needed to make my case. It’s often the case that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.”  You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.

As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them.  Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.

The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument (except that it’s harder work for the teacher, of course, but that’s another story). An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there).  

An enlightened school or company principal would stand their ground and say that we’re going to have piano for class, at least some of the time, for the sake of doing the ritual the right way. If you can be alert to the ritual aspects of having a pianist to class, then you’re less likely to employ pianists just for the sake of it, because you believe in some unspecified good that they must bring to the process of teaching. Oddly enough, that is more of a belief in magic than having a pianist because it makes the ritual of class nicer. 

Hiring pianists because you think they’ll just bring magic to the class just by virtue of being there and playing a piano, reminds me of the story my Russian teacher (an ex-army Major) told me about WW2:   Russian peasants, never having encountered plumbing before, ripped out the water taps from the walls of the houses they raided, thinking that if they took them home they could get running water in their own villages. 

Representing ballet class with piano 

Recently (I’m updating this paragraph now in Sept 2019) I’ve been struggling with a really tricky article about music and representation, and in the process, I have become much more alert to the role that representations of ballet class (in film, television, and novels, for example) have to play in our construction of what ballet class is. In the past, I’d thought there was something rather quaint, bizarre, and regressive about the fact that when ballet classes are represented in this way, they often feature pianos and pianists, even though this is quite rare in real life—or only normal for vocational schools and (some) companies. But now I realize that these representations are what give us our sense of what ballet classes are, just as children’s picture books give us an idea of what apples and trains look like. Is there something fundamentally wrong with believing that a ballet class, essentially, should have a pianist? Should we be more realistic, should we aim to represent ballet classes “as they really are,” and thus change the expectations? It’s a genuine question, I’m really in two minds: on the one hand, it’s wrong to denigrate wholesale the excellent work done by  teachers who use recordings, or to elevate the sometimes very bad work done by teachers who have pianists (and by their pianists, too), simply by virtue of them having live music.  On the other, why not hold up a particular form of the practice as exemplifying not simply “what it is” but what you would like it to be? 

See also

Two posts on the joys of live music: 

Playing for ballet class tip #2: It’s all about the left hand, not the right

Links to Mosco Carner's book on the waltz at the Internet Archive

Illustration from Mosco Carner’s book on the waltz

This is day 2 in my 2012 Advent Calendar. I’m blogging about playing for ballet classes. I call the posts ‘tips’, because possibly what I learned along the way might be useful. There’s no reason why my experience should be like yours, but you never know. 

Nine times out of ten, the secret of being a good dance pianist is to concentrate on what your left hand is doing rather than your right.  As pianists, we tend to obsess over the right hand because that’s where the difficult fingering, the splashy runs, the big melodies are. And while you’re doing that, you start to do terrible things with the left because you think no-one will notice or care.

But in dance music, the most important thing is to set up a vital, secure, infectious rhythm that implies movement. What looks so easy on paper (it’s just a bass note and two chords, right?) needs to be imagined carefully with reference to the musical reality it’s trying to represent. Let’s say it’s a Strauss waltz. Imagine the double bass section – how many of them are there? One? Two? Six? Are they playing pizzicato or arco? If it’s pizzicato, imagine the care with which they pluck the string to get it on just the right part of the beat. If it’s arco, how long are the notes? What gesture has the conductor made to them to get the right kind of sound?

Now to those chords. Whose playing them, and how? Strings? Pizzicato, arco? Horns? Harp? What do they have written in their parts – a tenuto and a staccato with a phrase mark over the two off-beats? Two down-bows? Whatever they do, they’ll be listening for that first note from the basses, so that they place the second beat at the right time, and the two off-beats will have a different timbral quality to the downbeat. It’s in a different section of the orchestra.

I can guarantee that if you start thinking like this from the introduction onwards, you’ll have people listening to you and locking in to your beat with pleasure, whereas nobody will know or  care whether you played that tune in octaves or single notes, or whether you missed that grace note in bar 7.  As you start thinking this way, your right hand may start to fall apart, because although you thought the left hand was easy, in fact you had no idea what your musical intentions were until now.

This isn’t something you learn once and never forget. I have to remind myself of it daily – and I’m writing this as a note-to-self, so that I never again make a recording (like I did recently) where I play each bar of a four bar introduction differently, none of them correct.

The picture on this post is from Mosco Carner’s The Waltz, an old and dated and utterly wonderful book. It’s free at the Internet Archive.

Playing for ballet class tips #1: Listen to yourself and the room


The Christmas tree at Elmhurst. It’s HUGE.

This is day 1 in my 2012 Advent Calendar. I’m blogging about playing for ballet classes. I call the posts ‘tips’, because possibly what I learned along the way might be useful. There’s no reason why my experience should be like yours, but you never know. 

If you play for class a lot, it’s easy to get into a habit of being so focused on what the dancers are doing, and what the teacher wants, that you stop listening to the sound you’re making. Playing becomes a kind of mindless typing, except you don’t know what you’ve written.  Your hands fall on the piano keys, letting gravity decide what kind of a sound comes out. Notes fall out of your fingers like water from a leaking ship.

There’s only one way to stop this, and that’s to listen. Not just to yourself, but to the room – how much sound are you making? How much does the studio need? Have you so filled the room with noise that no-one can actually hear anything any more? When you listen, is it just one huge wash of undifferentiated sound? What noise is there when you stop?

One of the best tips about playing I ever had was from a (dance) teacher and movement coach for actors. He said ‘Imagine there’s a small child in that corner [at the far end of the studio], and you’ve got to try and cheer them up with your music.’

Apart from engaging your heart and soul in the process of making music, it also changes your focus. Perhaps what you need is less volume but more articulation. More legato, or less pedal. More interest, more variety. Anything, in fact, but the kind of amorphous  ‘ballet noise’ that  you might have been making up til now.

The good news is that the more you play less, the easier it is to do more. If you have moments where you bring everything down a notch, the teacher (usually) says less, and when you need to give volume, it’s less effort. The more there is to listen to, the more people listen. And if they don’t, well, at least you did it for yourself.

Advent calendar 2012: playing for ballet classes


It’s that time of year again when I try to blog for 25 days in a row for Advent, on something to do with dance and music.  This year it’s going to be tips for playing for ballet classes. I once did something called ‘100 tips for working with ballet pianists’, but I’ve never done one the other way round (which is odd, considering I probably know more about being a ballet pianist than working with one).

It’s a very personal perspective I offer here. I don’t think there is a way to play for class that fits every company. I don’t think there’s one ‘thing’ called ballet, or a technique for playing for class that you can pick up and take anywhere. I also think that it’s got very little to do with music, and a lot to do with getting on and working with others.  Nobody needs a difficult pianist, however well they can play Chopin.